Pull it together, Zelda.
Reinard was waiting for a reply. She cleared her throat so he wouldn't hear if the start of tears had made her froggy. "I understand."
"Good. How did that plane thing go this morning?"
Oh, hells. "They changed the schedule, we missed the landing."
"Damn. I wanted to give Louise something to choke on." Reinard tapped his pipe against the ashtray in an agitated manner. That wasn't a good sign. "I have another assignment for you."
"You're covering the Saturnalia ball on Friday," he said, taking a puff on his pipe.
Her mind went blank at the word Saturnalia.
"I know you usually take the holidays off," Reinard continued, though she hardly heard him. "But there's rumors PZ has a new beau and if anyone can get that story it's you."
Princess Zoë, the reason Zelda had gotten her start in this business in the first place. "I'm already committed—"
"Triple pay, Minelli." Reinard dangled the offer between them. He had to be aware how lousy her salary was.
What she couldn't do with that money.
But it would mean going back to her roots, on Saturnalia, of all nights. That was when she had ruined Zoë for the first time. When she made herself this stifling career in Entertainment.
The air in the room was thin. It was that damn pipe. She couldn't get enough to breathe.
"You'll cancel your other plans?"
"Of course," she heard herself say.
Reinard waved the pipe at his door. "Good girl. Rolling deadlines, the usual."
"Sir." Zelda let her smudged cream shoes carry her out of the office and back to her desk, where she sat and stared at her notebook. The corner was curling up, exposing the layers of pressed paper that made up the cardboard.
How could she have said yes to this? Years of avoidance had stood her in good stead. It helped that her mother had an annual party that she expected Zelda to attend. Well, that was off the table now. Cecilia already thought Zelda's career was barbaric—a woman of her station shouldn't have a career. She didn't need one.
Zelda pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut. Thinking about her mother would only bring on a headache. Taking a breath, she reached for her pen and began a list.
Call Mater, cancel plans. Rent dress. Shoes. Handbag.
She couldn't go to the imperial Saturnalia celebration in anything less than haute couture. Finding something at this late stage would probably take up all of the next two days before the party.
At least she didn't have to find a date.
Princess Zoë had refused to go with any of the young men her mother presented to her. She told the empress that she was attending alone, but made sure the party planner knew to set a seat for an unnamed person. Her tailors had the most information to go on, as they had been instructed to dye Zoë's shoes to match a men's dress shirt. Pale lilac, very seasonal.
Zoë kept the secret even from her twin. Not that it was much of a secret.
In the privacy of the former playroom that connected their bedrooms, Cleo rolled her eyes for the umpteenth time. "You're making everyone crazy."
"Side perk." Zoë flipped through a magazine, lying on her stomach on a plush couch that had been part of their 'young lady' upgrades to the playroom.
"Anyone who's been paying attention knows it's Devon."
"Ah, but you know and I know that the only people who know where to look are not our parents."
Cleo tugged the magazine away. "If you want him to make a good impression on Pater, this is not the way to do it."
Zoë sighed, feeling the weight of it pressing onto her shoulders. "He's not landed gentry, Cleo, he'll never be good enough for Pater."
Her sister sat beside her on the wide cushions. "You're sure you want to do this? Like this? Is it really fair to Devon to introduce him this way?"
Guilt trickled into Zoë's consciousness. It had taken up residence in the back of her mind several weeks ago, and continued to interrupt at the most inconvenient times. She propped herself up on one elbow to give Cleo a hard stare. "We've talked about it. He agreed that this was as good a way as any."
"Introducing him as your date for the very first time in front of the whole world at the Saturnalia ball?"
"Well, when you put it like that."
"I'm serious, Zoë."
"It's too late now to cancel. And I would feel like a fraud taking anyone else."
A knock came at their door and they both called for the person to enter. A maid curtsied to them before saying, "Your highness, Princess Zoë, you have a visitor. Informal. Very informal."
The twins exchanged curious looks. Visitors outside of arranged meetings were exceedingly rare for them. One didn't simply show up at the imperial palace.
"I'll be right there." Zoë shrugged at Cleo, took a moment to straighten her sweater, and followed the maid through the vast palace corridors to the antechamber where her guest was waiting. She entered the room, preparing herself for a last-minute overture from one of her mother's friends' nephews.
Instead she found Devon Callaghan, silhouetted against the window but she would recognize his profile anywhere.
"Devon!" Zoë remembered to push the door shut before running to him.
He turned in time to catch her and hugged her—a brief, tight hug. "I know I'm not supposed to be here but I had to talk to you in person."
Her smile wilted. "Why? You look so serious..."
Devon took her hands in his and tugged her over to a couch that was meant more for ornamentation than comfort. He perched awkwardly on the edge. "Orders came down this morning. My unit is being moved out of Roma."
Zoë's hands tightened on his, everything but this moment falling away. People said that could happen for romance—a proposal, or the first 'I love you'—but they never said it could happen for fear. Her worst worries crowded at the edge of her consciousness, waiting for Devon to make them real. "Where? When?"
"That's at the edge of the empire!"
"Shh. I shouldn't even have told you that much. But I knew you'd find a way to figure it out."
Zoë got up and paced the length of the couch, fidgeting with the bangles at her wrist. "It has to be tonight? They can't wait? I could talk to my father—"
Devon rose to stop her. Gently, he pulled her into a hug. "It's tonight."
Her arms wrapped around his waist a they held each other.
It was stupid, it was petty, but she couldn't help the question that beat against her brain.
What was she going to do about Saturnalia?